Famed Roman orator and consul Cicero is celebrated as a staunch defender of the Republic, and of traditional Roman morality and civic virtues. He was also a shrewd opportunist who survived the Republic’s demise and lived to tell about it, although he supported Julius Caesar’s rival Pompey in the contest for control of Rome. When Caesar became a dictator, he forgave Cicero. And when Caesar was murdered, Cicero applauded:
Our tyrant deserved his death for having made an exception of the one thing that was the blackest crime of all… here you have a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman People and master of the whole world; and he achieved it! The man who maintains that such an ambition is morally right is a madman, for he justifies the destruction of law and liberty and thinks their hideous and detestable suppression glorious…. All honest men killed Caesar… some lacked design, some courage, some opportunity: none lacked the will.
Cicero then attached himself to Caesar’s great-nephew and named successor, Octavian, the future Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. “The elder statesman was extremely flattered to have Octavian ‘totally devoted to me,’” José Miguel Baños writes at National Geographic. “He became convinced that an alliance with Octavian might help to destroy [Mark] Antony’s political aspirations.” This time, Cicero backed the right dictator. Nonetheless, before committing suicide with his lover Cleopatra, Antony had the great orator beheaded. It was “the moment,” writes Baños, “the Roman Republic truly died.”
Cicero’s death, and Augustus’ ascension, marked the birth of the Roman Empire, ruled by a succession of emperors — or sometimes two, three, or even six or seven emperors. Many of these are renowned, rightly or wrongly, for their decadence and hedonism. Caligula, Nero, Commodus have all become villains in feature films. Some were philosophers, like Marcus Aurelius; some were teenagers, like Heliogabalus, who reigned from age 14 to age 18, when he was murdered by his own Praetorian guard, and Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Western emperors, who ascended at age 12, a proxy for his father, and was deposed by German general Odoacer in 476 AD.
The Empire continued for another 1000 years of Christian rule in the East, first under Constantine, in Constantinople (now Istanbul), which had been named Byzantium; hence Rome became the Byzantine Empire. The video above shows a timeline of every Roman emperor from Augustus to the very last ruler of the Eastern Empire, Constantine XI Palaiologos, who surrendered Constantinople in 1453 to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.
The Empire had finally fallen, 1500 years after Cicero warned of the Republic’s demise. Before his army’s defeat, the last Byzantine Emperor gave a speech to “the descendants of the Greeks and Romans.”
I can tell you that this city mastered the entire universe; She placed beneath her feet Pontus, Armenia, Paphlagonia, The Amazonian lands, Cappadocia, Galatia, Media, Georgian Colchis, Bosphoros, Albania, Syria, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Palestine, Arabia, Judea, Bactria, Scythia, Macedonia, Thessaly, Boeotia, Locris, Aetolia, Arcarnania, Achaea, the Peloponnese, Epirus, Illyria, Lykhnites, the Adriatic, Italy, Tuscany, the Celts, and Galatian Celts, Spain up to Cadiz, Libya, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Beledes, Scude, Numidia, Africa and Egypt.
Consider, said the last emperor, “my brothers and comrades in arms, how the commemoration of our death, our memory, fame and freedom can be rendered eternal.”